Congregations of Place, Conjugations of Time (English)


Lire aussi / Related : L'esprit des lieux

In the beginning, there was land and water-long afterwards, people came. If we retrace human history to its dawn, we are left with living landscape stretching back into the dim regions of geological time. And so it is that the physicality of the earth is charged with potential for mysteries. While culture contains and builds upon the known, landscape provides the burying ground for the unknown. Its immense age makes it the locus of so much that has long been forgotten. Human history itself seems little more than the saving of people and events from their relentless erasure from memory, and from place. The external environment has thus become a repository for symbols and ciphers, for metaphors of being. It is also the principal domain in which we visualize space and time. With this background, I felt an immediate affinity with Christian Lapie when I first read the title of his artistic manifesto Tentative d'Exploration d'un Temps Immense.

The very title introduces the idea of an attempt against the odds-of a beginning and not an ending. Such an ambitious aspiration-the exploration of deep time-must be rooted in uncertainty. Lapie's figures-vestigial, immobile, congregating in silent groups-convey uncertainty and anticipation and point toward an incomplete and transitory past. Physically, a key characteristic of the figures is that they are immediately recognizable as by Lapie-the artist does not seek to make individual sculptures that differ from each other. Instead, their generic forms epitomize human collectivity. He has written about his search for "une forme archaique et symbolique qui associe à un matériau devienne 'outil visuel'..." The result has been the adoption of a form that is primitively and totemically human.

Das Sulzburger Feld led me straight into a personal reading of Lapie's endeavor. The work enveloped its visitor in the field because the fifty-one wooden figures extended all around and beyond one. Moving in the field was to join an assembled multitude, to become a vital element in the work. Lapie's figures, hewn, charred and tarred, in their very incompleteness are open to the landscape and are in and from their place…"parce que noires nous ne les voyons pas." Their power as works of art derives from the ways in which they stand together; I cannot help but ask "why this congregation?"-"why here?" - "what has happened?" The work is embedded in and dependent on its physical locus. Lapie's figure-like forms become symbolic and anachronistic relics of former and unknown human participations in place, of dimensions beyond the present. His works become keys to invisible archives of human activity situated somewhere between work and site.

Is there a European tradition into which we may fit this strong conjunction of time and place in sculpture? Indeed, the Renaissance sculptor collapsed time in referring to ancient Roman and Greek precedents, in evoking a golden age. However, the human form was all-too-frequently inhabited by gods, kings and other symbols of timelessness. The places in which sculpture was displayed was not fundamental to its artistic integrity. Parks and gardens of the eighteenth century revived the quest for the perfection of a golden age-their statues connect the physical mortal with the continuum of the environment in an artificial décor that posed as nature. Time and place were dimensions of the environment of the sculpture, yet the work generally stood outside of these as a studio creation. When the aesthetic and spatial qualities of place came to be valued in their own right, in the late eighteenth-century picturesque movement, art had to be concealed-sculpture disappeared as superfluous by comparison with the timeless and infinitely variable forms of nature itself. With Rodin sculpture bent to natural forces, abandoned the ideal of perfect form, and thus began the slow decline in the value accorded to accuracy of representation and in the artist's adherence to conventional ideas of beauty. This decline was accompanied by a progressive rise in the creative individuality of a sculptor's work, a need to differentiate stylistically from the work of others and to load expression into the work. Lapie, in his exploration of "un temps immense" adopts a deliberately archaic "visual tool" to reach beyond this tradition. By so doing he may be considered to encompass it. What is more, his use of forms that resemble human figures not only connect his work with sculpture's dominant theme in history, but also create a framework for his broader subject-the relationship between place and human lives.

We have suggested that the primitivism of Lapie's figures endows them with time depth. But how does this artist explore and reflect the particularity of place? He does this by inviting us to join the congregation that he has made deliberately to dwell in a specific location. In terms of connection and engagement between work and observer, work and place, and hence observer and place, the effect of deploying several forms in the landscape is made more powerful and engaging when those forms take on a human guise. It is easier to relate affectively to humanoid than to abstract form, and therefore to begin to develop a relationship with the place that is mediated by such a human-affecting form. Take for example the famous Fields conceived by Antony Gormley, in which the total occupation of space by proto-human creatures, naively rendered out of clay, "negotiates two factors; the spirit of the ancestors; the primal population made of the earth, where mud takes on the attributes of sentience and the evocation of the unborn-those who are yet to come."

Despite the contemporary emphasis on site-specificity in sculpture, relatively few twentieth century artists seem to have explored the combined dimensions of time and place as deliberately as Lapie. However, if as I believe the presence of a plurality of humanoid form promotes enquiry into place and purpose, the Three Upright Motifs, nos. 7, 2 and 1, by Henry Moore at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands provides an early example of a sculpture that invites inquiry into place. This may be accidental, for the 1950s bronze totems stand outside what was to be an enormous temple of art and culture. The work stands as a group of guards in domination and protection of a museum that was never built-by default they become the spirits of the place, guardians not so much of culture as of nature. The role of place as defended territory is fundamental to our relationship with landscape. Lapie's "perimeter guardians" at the Clos du Zahnacker and his Fort 61 in Japan bear more than a passing resemblance to Moore's Three Upright Motifs.

The ritual dimensions of place are manifested in the ancient monuments of Carnac, Stonehenge, Easter Island and so on. Jean-Paul Philippe's Site Transitoire near Sienna is a fine example of the suggestivity of artifacts that are at once evidently deliberate but totally inexplicable in orthodox terms. Philippe achieved this power through harnessing archaic forms, as does Lapie though using figures rather than the materials that figures might use. The power of such a work, that affects an ancient origin, is that it tells us that there is a deep and enduring meaning attached to its site-with Carnac and the other places mentioned, as with the Site Transitoire we do not know what it is, but the work mediates an inescapable relationship between its viewer and its site. Traces of former lives and their physical contexts are evoked in the works of other contemporary artists-for example, Mark Dion's "archaeological" projects, Bruni/Babarit's primitive "agriculture" and settlements, and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

In parallel a more abstracted connection between time and place, referring to the ecological and the timelessness of natural process, is exemplified in the work of David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy. Nash is concerned with wood-like Lapie-but not with carving a human image, unless as loosely as in his Kings and Queens. Goldsworthy works with natural objects too. Like Nash, he shows the way that artifacts made entirely of natural found materials can emulate the beauty of objets d'art. Both of these artists produce work that is in some degree "plural"-for example, Goldsworthy's cairns have appeared in a wide range of sites and Nash has reworked his water splashes and domes of ash posts in different places.

Lapie's work too is powerfully plural, based as it is on variations of one rendering of the human form. Like the other artists mentioned, he repeats a motif from site to site-that is his archaic form, his "outil visuel." But unlike them, he repeats that motif within each site. His congregations of forms occupy space in a way that a single work cannot. Each sculptural entity commands a zone of influence around it. The difference between a single-object work and a multi-object work in terms of effect and relationship with site may be seen in examples from Ulrich Ruckriem. Compare a typical "monolith" with the congregation of seven slabs set in a shallow hollow at Outwood Colliery on the Irwell Sculpture Trail in England.

The Conversation Pieces by the late Juan Muñoz come closer still to a Lapie installation. Muñoz's work seems to contain the artist's comment on the awkwardness of the human condition-the difficulty of being oneself, the weight of convention being represented by the bulbous bases of the human figures that heavily yet inconsequentially occupy their respective positions in relation to each other and their environment. Muñoz's work is about individuals stuck in relation to each other. The message is fundamentally pessimistic and concerned with the present crisis of the subject. Lapie is more historically rooted.

War has been a recurring backdrop to Lapie's work, and as a native of Champagne-Ardennes there is just reason. As a political sculptor, it is remarkable that works of his that refer to the Second World War have been commissioned by French (La Reddition) and by Germans (Das Sulzburger Feld). They cross boundaries physically and conceptually-another writer has noted that the works evoke both victim and oppressor. The cruelty of the acts that they commemorate resonates in the process of manufacture-chainsaw, fire, tar. There is no fine finish. The offering of 'unfinished' work like this to the environment is a metaphoric gesture that embraces hope-the work as the human endeavor that it echoes is part of a process that is subject to change.

Closest of all to Lapie among contemporary landscape installations, I would place Katarsis (1985), a work by Magdalena Abakanowicz at the Fattoria di Celle, near Pistoia. The power of an assembly of figures-distorted, approximate, yet self-evidently something to do with us-is so strong in this work. An assembly has a special significance-it denotes the imposition of power "The Assembly," and it denotes subjugation to power as in mass deportations and assassinations. Wherever these things happen, wherever any historically consequential act happens-be it murder, be it the establishment of a boundary, be it the ground that a village has claimed as its own, be it maybe even love-there is a ground memory that a work of art can invite us to explore. One person in a field is about his or her own business-we do not enquire. Where a group gathers, there is something consequential afoot. Something of collective importance is under way. Christian Lapie's groups of figures strike a chord between our collective consciousness and the places of their gathering, inviting us to draw place, sculpture and history together.

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